Could community solar’s future be at risk in Massachusetts?

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Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker sat before the Senate in the Statehouse and outlined his vision for solar in the state’s future yesterday. Of particular interest was net-metering, and net-metering caps, which figure prominently in the cost analysis of any solar project.

Governor Baker was quick to mention that he would not push for changes to the law regarding net metering for either individuals or industrial users, meaning users with roofs and capital to make such investments. Though, the future of commercial and Community Solar – remember Community Solar is the only way for those with less financial wherewithal to get solar power – installations could face greater economic uncertainties if the Governor doesn’t adjust his stance.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker at the State House. Photo by Lucas Krupinski.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker at the State House. Photo by Lucas Krupinski.

Specifically, to my ears, it sounded as if rooftop installations – people that can afford a house and can afford the up front cost – will continue to take full-advantage of net-metering for the foreseeable future, but when a solar array is installed in a field, whether it is owned by a solar developer or collectively by the residents whose homes might not be viable for solar (“Community Solar“), the net metering rules may no longer apply to them in the future.

There is much talk about solar customers leeching from the grid.

The utilities state that solar system owners are paying negligible amounts toward upkeep and maintenance of the electric grid overall because of the dynamics of net-metering, where their panels return power to the grid when it’s not needed in their homes. It’s with this argument that the utilities are trying to create a “rich versus poor” divide – pitching to the public that it’s the wealthy folk who are not paying their fair share for maintenance of the core infrastructure. This contrasts with a recent study by the Acadia Center which found that solar installations add more value to the grid than they are paid.

Who knows? There are arguments for that on both sides. But the state’s biggest energy players are not exactly starving for capital:

New England-based Eversource Energy has raised its quarterly dividend every year since 2000, and National Grid, a company with worldwide operations, still pays a healthy dividend to shareholders despite looking down the barrel of a 20+ year project to replace leaking natural gas infrastructure throughout Massachusetts.

One has to wonder which costs a utility more money – energy being transferred from a solar panel to a power line and then to a neighboring house, or tearing up miles and miles of city streets in order to repair and replace leaking cast-iron gas lines.

Just two weeks ago, National Grid approached state regulators for a 21% percent rate increase for delivering electricity to customers in Massachusetts, saying “Due to continued gas pipeline constraints, the electric supply prices remain volatile and relatively high, though not as high as last winter.”

At the same time, both National Grid and Eversource submitted proposals to lower the price of Natural Gas to Massachusetts customers (Eversource customers would see a 31% savings, while National Grid customers would see a 5% savings). (Authors Note: Yes – the price for electricity is going up because of natural gas, but the price of natural gas is going down. I wish I was making that up!)

And in New York, ConEdison has a tangle of old natural gas pipes that are in need of $10 billion in repairs, a cost which will ultimately be born by the company’s customers.

It seems to go like this: utilities make customers pay to build and repair their infrastructure. They then want to charge customers who have opted to go solar for accessing the infrastructure that those solar customers have already paid for. And while the utilities try to demonize the “rich people” who have already switched to solar power, they pass off huge rate hikes to customers as being the result of natural gas constraints, while lowering the price of natural gas delivery itself – and pushing against programs that benefit the poor.

The utilities seem content to play too many games in the hopes that the public doesn’t pay attention, and essentially want to have their cake and eat it too. They pass off capitalized investment costs to their customers to take on as an added expense, play games with rates that make no sense from casual inspection, and pay their shareholders an ever growing stream of dividend payments without making repairs to their infrastructure.

So – is net-metering an actual burden, a case of rich freeloaders taking advantage of commercial utilities? If so, why is the Governor pushing for a plan that will focus more solar power in those richer demographics? Why attack the one program – Community Solar – that balances our the ‘rich solar power owner’ argument? Or is quashing net-metering in the utilities interest as it would preserve their power as the status quo and game playing which they’ve proven to be so adept at?


Support community solar in Massachusetts? Let Governor Baker know!

Senate President Stan Rosenberg has been a long time supporter of green energy initiatives, recently telling reporters that he sees a “disconnect” between policy makers pushing green energy and regulatory agencies such as FERC and the state Dept. of Public Utilities, saying they are bound by outdated statutes.

Or, look up your legislator here, and let them know your thoughts.

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Lucas Krupinski
Consultant
Lucas likes to write. Besides contributing to Commercial Solar Guy, he maintains a blog at Current Take.

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